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How Britain became socially liberal

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Analysis by the Policy Institute, based on 2019 polling by Ipsos MORI that updates a 1989 survey, reveals how the British public have become far more tolerant of a range of moral issues and activities in the last 30 years.

Key findings reveal:

  • The public are now hugely more tolerant of homosexuality compared with 30 years ago, with only 13 per cent seeing it as immoral compared with 4 in 10 people in 1989. 
  • The public today are much more accepting of illegal drug use than they were in 1989. In 1989, 60 per cent said the use of soft drugs such as cannabis was morally wrong, now down to 29 per cent in 2019. 89 per cent in 1989 said hard drugs such as heroin were immoral compared with 67 per cent today.
  • Just 7 per cent think it is immoral for couples who are not married to live together, down from 13 per cent in 1989 and moral disapproval of divorce has declined along similar lines (six per cent in 2019 vs 11 per cent in 1989) cent.
  • When it comes to attitudes on life and death, capital punishment is now viewed as morally wrong by 37 per cent of the public, up from 22 per cent in 1989. Whilst those who see euthanasia as immoral has reduced by five percentage points from 22 per cent 30 years ago. Today, 18 per cent think abortion is immoral, whilst almost half that proportion (35%) held this view in 1989.
  • The public’s moral judgement of politicians is far less favourable now compared with 30 years ago. In 1989 36 per cent agreed that “in general, politicians are good people”, but this has now more than halved to 15 per cent.

Given the very long time frame for the study, some of the big changes we see are due to a different sort of older group replacing the previous older group (a generational replacement effect), as well as general shifts in attitudes among the population as a whole (a period effect). In particular, one of the biggest causes of change in moral attitudes overall has been the “Baby Boomer” generation moving into older age.